Roundtable: Race and Gender in Comics

The race and gender roundtable is here!

Mixing it up were our resident writer Mai Pucik; Arturo Garcia, a writer for Racialicious; writer and comics publisher/editor Talisha Harrison; blogger and webcomic creator Jamie Kingston; and moderator Kelly Kanayama.

In part one (of two), we talked about “diversity” characters in comics, the gendering of race, and really ill-advised X-Men names.

To start things off, can you introduce yourselves – who you are, where you write and what you write about/your interests as they pertain to this roundtable?

Arturo: I’m the managing editor at Racialicious, where we cover race and pop culture, and I frequently write about race and portrayals/representation of race in comics, sci-fi and other fandom-related genres. I’m also an editor at The Raw Story, a progressive news site with more of an emphasis on politics.

Tali: I’ve written for a few comic/geek sites in the past, but currently I write for ComicsCrux, Fanboybuzz, and ToonariPost.com (I write music and lit-related articles for them). I’m also a Managing Editor, an Assistant Editor, and a marketer for a new comic book company that’s just getting off the ground: Affinity Storm Press. I’m the creator, editor, and sole staffer of Kehila Magazine (an online magazine for Jews of Color). Finally, I’ve recently self-published a collection of poetry, and I’m working on my first novel and other writing projects.

Jamie: I’m a longtime editor on the tvtropes.org wiki, and I’ve been consuming sci-fi/fantasy media for decades. I have an autobiographical blog-webcomic called Orchid Coloured Glasses wherein I share my thoughts on “fake geek girls”, gatekeeping, trends in comics, among other things as they strike the fancy. I have a new project in the hopper, but am trying to determine if I want it to be prose or comic.

Mai: Former moderator of scans_daily, a comics-oriented community blog founded by geeky women, and current freelance writer/proofreader. Lifelong fantasy/sci-fi fan.

Jumping right into it now. In light of the recent-ish “M-word” controversy in Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers–where Havok publicly disavowed the term “mutant” as offensive–and the variety of controversies surrounding DC, have mainstream comics gotten better or worse in terms of representations of race and gender? What about independent or non-US comics?

Arturo: I think there are good individual representations, but I wouldn’t say any particular corner has turned for the better in overall terms.

Tali: I think it’s been a mixed bag, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve gone from being a more involved, excited fan in 2011, to one who is disillusioned with comics/geek culture. I’m glad there are people of color, women, and LGBT characters but I’m also annoyed, and in some instances pissed, with how they are often treated at the Big Two. As far as indie goes, I think there’s more representation and a lot of it is great (such as the comic Princeless. I also love Gwendolyn from Saga, and Michonne from TWD) and I’m sure there’s some of it that isn’t.

Jamie: I don’t read Uncanny Avengers, though Tumblr shared the speech. I agree with the rebuttal Kitty Pryde delivered in All-New X-Men. The idea that “mutant” is just a label we should do away with is naive, in my opinion. Kitty’s response is the more sensible and realistic one. She knows she has the privilege of looking like “an average white girl”, but if she lets on she’s Jewish, that makes her doubly oppressed. Alex looks like “an average white guy” and still has that privilege if he can get people to ignore or look past “mutant” as a label. So it’s hard to say if we’re doing better or worse on that front. At least we have a number of characters of color showing up again. Monica Rambeau, Cecilia Reyes, the new White Tiger. However, we’re definitely not doing better in the art department. The features of many characters of color are “Europeanized” and many of them are colored lighter than they were in their first appearances. Indie comics are doing better, as Tali said. I adore Gwen from Saga.

Arturo: I appreciated Bendis writing a rebuttal to Remender, but at the end of the day, you had a bunch of white people arguing about racial oppression, not that far removed from two white dudes–Scott and Logan–becoming the leaders of different factions of that same minority without Storm even getting into the discussion.

But Marvel’s handling of the Remender situation–and that includes putting him on UA to begin with–was ridiculous. I’d love to hear what qualified him for that book instead of Marjorie Liu.

Mai: First, a disclaimer that I haven’t really been reading “mainstream” US comics in the past year, other than to binge on Captain Marvel and Young Avengers every few months (although I have my eye on Mighty Avengers–anyone here tried that yet?) However, when looking for inclusive media at Marvel/DC especially, I think it’s a safer bet to look at what individual creators are doing than company output as a whole. More and more creators are eking out spaces on sites like Twitter and Tumblr where they talk about their work and interact with fans, so that’s getting easier.

The indies are doing better, as they have been for some time–I love Saga, and after thoroughly enjoying the first issue of Princeless I immediately stocked up on more to dole out to myself carefully.

Jamie: With only one issue out, it’s too early to call, with Mighty Avengers, though I’m happy to see Monica again

Arturo: I think Mighty exemplifies one problem, though: sure, we have a team that will be mostly PoC once it’s formed, which fits the definition of “diversity” as we know it. But then what? Even if the numbers go up, characters of color aren’t given equity in their portrayals. Or in terms of promotion. If Marvel really cared that much about Monica, wouldn’t we get t-shirts of her version of the Captain Marvel suit? Or of her new gear as Spectrum (which I really do dig, by the way).

Mai: That’s really the rub. Even when individual creators do good work with characters of color and other minorities, it only goes so far when the company that owns those characters doesn’t bother to push them.

kitty rebuttal

In the past couple of years, DC Comics has wiped out Korean-American Linda Park (Wally West’s wife) from official continuity and given Alan Scott a Chinese fiancé for the sole purpose of killing said fiancé. Are “diversity” characters more disposable than straight white male characters, and do creators have a greater obligation to hold onto said “diversity” characters than to straight white male characters?

Arturo: In the eyes of many members of the comics-reading fanbase, I think they absolutely are more disposable, even if they’ll never admit it in so many words. Besides the two characters you mentioned, just look at the responses when Jaime Reyes and Ryan Choi were introduced. You’d think it was somebody’s job getting outsourced.

By comparison, look at how the animated incarnations of Reyes, Choi, and most notably, John Stewart were received among people who watched their animated shows.

Do I think there’s a greater obligation to hang on to CoC? I think the greater obligation is to offer fully-realized characters, and put them on multiple tracks. Sure, death should be an option. But it shouldn’t be the only option.

Tali: Of course they are, and it’s despicable. Look at the reaction when they introduced Miles Morales as the new Ultimate Spider-Man. But as Arturo mentioned, it’s interesting to see how well the animated versions of these characters were received. I was introduced to Static Shock via the cartoon, so when the New 52 debuted, I was looking forward to reading a Static Shock comic for the first time. And guess what happened? They messed it up. Sometimes I wonder why they even bother putting out books for characters of color, if they’re not going to put 100% into making the book good. And when they do, it’s not enough at times. I will say that I’ve stuck with Batwing from the beginning and I do enjoy that book (Palmiotti and Gray are two of my favorite writers), and I’m glad that it’s not on the chopping block to be canceled.

Jamie: Absolutely they/we are. There used to be a site called Dead Bro Walking that tracked how frequently the black guy was killed in movies of multiple genres. Some of that is old thinking that hasn’t been shaken yet. The rest is just a new spin on the old Women in Refrigerators trope, which again, is old thinking. Part of the problem from a corporate mindset, is that the flagship characters are all white. And they believe “nobody” wants to read about characters of differing ethnic backgrounds because they can’t relate. But that’s societal conditioning nobody wants to try hard enough to break because they’re snuggling their profit margin: “who’s a pwecious pile of money? You are.” And the attempts are kind of unfortunate too. There’s a new Filipino X-Man whose moniker is “Goldballs”. And a new Latino whose moniker, “Hijack”, made me go on a rant about why that’s wrong. Why didn’t someone at Marvel stop to think about how that codename would evoke terrorism, especially on a brown-skinned character? Northstar’s husband Kyle, though, is treated like a member of the X-tended family and is still alive. So hopefully the “disposable minority” is starting to weaken as a trope.

Mai: Since we’re talking about animated portrayals, I loved the characters of Aqualad and Artemis in the late and lamented Young Justice cartoon. Having Artemis was particularly meaningful, since I never expected to see a superheroine who was a white/Vietnamese American like me, starring in a kid’s cartoon. Though as much as I loved her, there were still problems–namely that she was blonde and voiced by a white VA using a generic “American” accent, when her supervillain sister was much darker, dressed in a Dragon Lady outfit and was voiced by an Asian American VA using a stereotypical “Asian” accent. Really?

I don’t think CoC need to have a particular “death exemption,” but the fact is that every individual CoC means more than individual white characters, because there are fewer of them and those that are around are less prominent. Of course when a CoC gets killed off, it carries a lot more weight.

What about gender diversity – are non-straight-male characters equally disposable or rotatable?

Arturo: I wonder if the tide on that is starting to turn a little. Marvel sure patted itself on the back when Northstar got married (which pointed out its hypocrisy when the Remender issue came up) and the backlash against DC’s handling of Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer must have perked up some eyeballs, particularly in a post-DOMA era.

Tali: I agree with Arturo that it’s changing very slowly. It would have really awesome to see Batwoman and Maggie marry and DC’s reason (it wasn’t anti-gay marriage) for not showing that doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I believe that it’s important for comics to lead and let society follow. And if comics reflect society as we’ve been told, then they should show gay marriage.

Jamie:  It’s always a matter of how progressive the ones in charge are. Flash has had a gay supporting character for decades now–Pied Piper. But all of a sudden the most prominent gay characters, Batwoman and Renee Montoya, are backburnered? Then again, Gail Simone got praise on Twitter for how she’s handling the trans* character in Batgirl. Marvel doesn’t do much better. But Karma is gay, Moonstar is bi, Northstar is Gay and there are gay Young Avengers. So at least there’s an attempt rather than an active quash. I’ve heard it said that Marvel revels in their heroes operate in a fantasy world, whereas DC appears to be embarrassed by, and apologetic of the same thing.

Mai: It’s slowly getting better, although as in other media there’s a definite prioritization of queer narratives that focus on white and middle-class people.

Do you think that race and gender are sometimes seen as competing demographics, with one getting sidelined in favor of the other? E.g. choosing between adding a white female character or a black male character to a comic, or a gay/trans character vs. an ethnic minority character.

Arturo: There’s this feeling that, given the choice, the Big Two would rather have more white women characters out there to shield them from criticism. One Marvel editor went on the record as pushing Carol Danvers for years for her own solo series. When was the last time Misty Knight got that kind of attention? Are we supposed to thank them for not bumping Monica Rambeau off?

Tali: I feel that the character order at the Big Two is the following: white man (straight or gay), white woman (straight or gay), black man (straight or gay), ethnic minority character (straight or gay), black woman (straight or gay). With the last two switched around depending on the Big Two’s mood.

Mai: That sounds bang on to me. And you can basically forget about anyone trans* or genderqueer, of whatever race–there are a few, but they’re overwhelmingly minor characters and (this is also true of characters of color in general) often aliens or otherwise non-human looking. Plus there’s always a risk that later writers come along and elide their gender identity into something more “normal,” as Joss Whedon did with Runaways‘ Xavin.

Jamie:  Misty is getting a lot of attention now in Fearless Defenders, on multiple levels. Partly because she doesn’t put up with Brunhilde the Valkyrie’s crap, and partly also because she has an artist who is actually doing an accurate portrayal of a black woman with natural hair. Most artists don’t care enough and put bangs on her afro, which any black woman knows is just not a hairstyle we’d wear.

Arturo: But my worry is that Misty and Colleen Wing, or Moonstar, will be rotated around tertiary titles. Whereas Carol was kept in the Avengers orbit for years and is a lead-pipe cinch for the Movie ‘verse. Meanwhile, Marvel supposedly can’t figure out a way to get the Black Panther on an Avengers movie? C’mon now.

Tali: If Marvel can bring to life on the big screen a talking raccoon with guns blazing and a talking tree who can kick butt, why is it so difficult to figure out how to bring the Black Panther to theaters? I also wonder, if DC would have went with John Stewart (who many knew as the Green Lantern from the cartoon) would the  Green Lantern film had been a success?

Arturo: It’s really not. But that’s who they’re choosing to emphasize. Also, it’s really hinky to me that Peggy Carter might be in the running for her own show, while, again, characters with years of history behind them like Misty K will never even get to be in that kind of discussion.

Indigo: And it’s not like we don’t have actors of color who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play Misty. Several of them have gone on record saying as much!

Mai: The three characters written out of the MCU Guardians of the Galaxy team were the lesbian couple and the woman of color. How convenient.

Misty and Colleen

You’d think Heroes for Hire or Daughters of the Dragon would be an easy sell for a movie or TV series–I know, I know, I say that every roundtable, but that’s because it’s true.

What about the combination of race + gender? Are representations of some races automatically gendered? – that is, are characters from certain racial backgrounds more likely to display attributes associated with specific genders or “nonstandard” gender/sexuality? (For instance, I read somewhere that Asian characters seem more likely than white characters to be portrayed as trans, although I don’t know how true this is…)

Jamie: Dunno about DC, as I’m only reading Batgirl atm, but with Marvel? Black women “have attitude”, and black guys are “tough” and “street”. Storm is the Elegant and Regal Black Woman, and T’Challa is the Elegant And Regal Black Man. They slide around with other black characters. Depends on who’s writing. Sunspot can be either a brainless womanizing himbo, or he is a loyal best friend/sidekick to Cannonball. Cecilia Reyes is a workaholic who denies herself love and keeps people at a distance by being abrasive. Cardiac is a genius, but he feels he can’t accomplish everything to help his community as a doctor, so he’s a grey costumed guy. Then again, David (Hijack) is an artist and a very philosophical person, and Goldballs is laid-back. Last I recall, DC did a little better. John Henry Irons and his niece were both hardworking and intelligent black people. And Virgil Hawkins, Static was a teen with good grades and a superhero life, so there was that. And when we saw XS and Kid Quantum in Legion, but how long has that been?  Ditto Mr. Terrific on the intelligent and “respectable” angle, but that was before new 52, so I don’t know now.

Arturo: I think Jamie did a good job summarizing the issue here. And the fact is that pre-New 52 there were better outlets there for some DC characters. Mr. Terrific was leading the JSA, for goodness’ sakes. DC should have jumped on that bandwagon as soon as it saw the response to the animated John Stewart. But… well, if you read some of the late Dwayne McDuffie’s commentaries, you get a sense of what was really going on.

Mai: Well, there are very few Asian men and a lot of Asian women, probably because the latter are such popular subjects of white fetishization. There are a lot of petite schoolgirls and sexy ninjas, and though this is less true of more recently created characters, many of them have tragic backstories of victimization and often sexual abuse steeped in Orientalist views of history–emphasis on history. I would love an explanation for why Karma/Xi’an Coy Manh’s history still involves the Vietnam War, even though the sliding Marvel timeline has kept her in her mid-twenties.

Tali: The problem is they write these characters as stereotypes instead of human beings who are unique, diverse individuals. They have tunnel vision and expect and believe that these characters can only be one thing.

Jamie: Tali, you called it. It’s like it’s just too much work/effort to see non-white characters as fully developed and realized individuals with hopes, dreams, thoughts outside of what stereotypes say they should match to their skin color. Although thankfully, they finally, finally got Psylocke out of the buttfloss–so a little less fetishization there. And they’ve all but erased the NDN characters, except Moonstar, who still wears feathers and moccasins with her X-suit even though she’s also a Valkyrie in her own right now.

Mai: I really can’t bring myself to care about Psylocke–with or without buttfloss–until they restore her to her original body. She’s not an Asian woman, she’s a white lady in literal yellowface.

nightrunner

What are your thoughts on other “double minority” characters, like the French/Algerian Muslim superhero–Nightrunner, I think–that Grant Morrison created a while back? Tali, I’d be particularly interested to hear your thoughts on this from both a reader’s and a creator’s perspective.

Tali: Well I’m Black and Jewish and as a fellow JOC (Jew of Color) has said, it’s like being black with more black added on. So I’m a double minority. Wait, actually I’m a triple minority, since I’m also a lady. I think if a character is going to be a double minority or triple, etc, then the creators should show both the best way they can. It’s nice to see, because people come in all colors and backgrounds, but at the same time it can be bad, especially if the creators haven’t done the research. I think an example of this would be the character from X-Men, Idie Okonkwo.

Mai: I’m a woman of color with a disability, and as you can imagine characters like that are not exactly thick on the ground anywhere in media, let alone at Marvel/DC. In recent years there was Melati Kusuma/Komodo, an Avengers: Initiative character created by Dan Slott and Stephano Caselli. It was great to see a WoC introduced as being confident and scientifically brilliant — she was a graduate student who modified and improved Curt Connors’ Lizard serum. It was not so great when her storyline spiralled into cliche hang-ups about keeping her human, double-amputee form a secret, and then even more cliche romantic drama with the utterly boring and utterly white Hardball. I would love to see her appear again and get fleshed out as a character in her own right, and not as a formula or an adjunct to another character. Which is what happens to minority characters all too often, whether single, double or triple.

Arturo: As a reader, I liked seeing the Batman Inc. characters arrive on the scene. But as a somebody who reads comics with my “thinking cap” on, so to speak, it didn’t take long for some of my concerns to manifest themselves: they were brought in to further a white man’s narratives (Hey, look at Bruce give these PoC jobs!), they weren’t given their own titles or stories separate from that narrative, and in the end they weren’t crucial in the fight against Leviathan, since most of the heavy action was written for Batman, his sons, and Knight & Squire.

The new heroes of Batman Inc. really could and should have been a platform for DC to expand the Bat-Brand into new markets. Imagine a Nightrunner book just for Europe, written by someone who can speak to the particular cultural tension he’s navigating. That’s a new money stream right there.

But in regards to characters with identities lending themselves to stories regarding intersectionality, I don’t think the comics industry as a whole even wants to consider those narratives.

Be back with us soon for part two
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One response to “Roundtable: Race and Gender in Comics

  1. Pingback: Race and Gender Roundtable: Part Two | women write about comics·

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